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1989: An Allie Burns Novel


1989: An Allie Burns Novel

“On reflection, I think the 1980s were a dreadful, abysmal time.”
     – Pete Burns

“When I look back at the 1980s I pinch myself. Did I really do all that?”
     – Cynthia Payne

These diverging perspectives about the 1980s open the novel 1989. Val McDermid has been producing top-notch thrillers for years, but her latest takes on the dark spot of an otherwise fruitful, if somewhat over-indulgent, decade --- the HIV/AIDS crisis. This is done not through a slick crime drama, which we have come to expect from McDermid, but through the world of competitive journalism. The book’s protagonist is journalist Allie Burns, who we are seeing a full 10 years after her appearance in the appropriately titled 1979.

"1989 is a great snapshot of a now-bygone era that is still eerily familiar. Allie Burns is a no-nonsense character, in much the same way as her creator, and the book pulls no punches whatsoever."

The prologue introduces us to a nameless man who bears an extreme hatred for media mogul and newspaperman Wallace Lockhart. He wants nothing more than to end his life and is hopeful that a little dose of cyanide will do the trick. While this passage may not make sense at first, it will become more than clear before the action of 1989 is over.

Allie begins the year with an assignment that is quite taxing on her mentally and physically: covering the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which rained down debris and body parts for miles and brought fields of fire to the area below. Meeting with and interviewing both eyewitnesses and families of victims takes a toll on Allie, who is eager to work on another story --- something with a different spin. She is about to get more than she ever imagined with her wish.

Throughout all of this, Allie has been able to keep her relationship with fellow journalist Rona a secret. As she puts it, she has stayed under the gaydar for years but knows this will change and feels the anti-gay resentment that the HIV/AIDS epidemic has created globally. The focus of her next story is the mass exodus of AIDS patients from Edinburgh to Great Britain and other parts of Europe so they can be treated. Edinburgh may be the AIDS hotbed of the area, but they are far from ably equipped to battle the disease.

While Allie puts together a comprehensive article with viewpoints from both Edinburgh and Great Britain that fully respects the medical practitioners involved, the rug is pulled out from under her when she loses the story and sees it released in an altered version that hides the heavy research and new facts she uncovered. Plus, she is horrified by the title of the piece: SICK SCOTS EXPORT AIDS TO ENGLAND.

Allie’s only recourse is to work with people she can trust, like Rona, so she can go deeper and find out what is really going on here. This quest will take her behind the Iron Curtain during a tumultuous time. She will learn about a large drug company and the controversial drug they are producing to battle HIV/AIDS. Of course, this treatment is not what everyone expected, which is what Allie plans to expose --- even if it means that her career and reputation are ruined in the process.

1989 is a great snapshot of a now-bygone era that is still eerily familiar. Allie Burns is a no-nonsense character, in much the same way as her creator, and the book pulls no punches whatsoever. McDermid firmly draws upon her own time spent as a journalist prior to writing fiction to deliver a novel that will both satisfy and anger those who read it. Unfortunately, we realize that corruption and hidden agendas always seem to win out at the cost of the innocent.

Reviewed by Ray Palen on October 14, 2022

1989: An Allie Burns Novel
by Val McDermid

  • Publication Date: September 12, 2023
  • Genres: Fiction, Suspense, Thriller
  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press
  • ISBN-10: 0802161219
  • ISBN-13: 9780802161215